I’m now one month from departure for my next trip to Mongolia. I don’t have a specific itinerary yet, and probably won’t until I arrive, but here’s some of the things I hope to do and see this time around:
-I’m one of the administrators for a Facebook fan page called “Buuz”, which are dearly beloved steamed meat dumplings. Mongols make and eat zillions of them for Tsagaan Sar, the Mongol New Year. When you ask a Mongol living in another country what they miss most, “buuz” is often the answer. We have over 700 fans now! And it turns out that the person who started the page, an Italian guy who is married to a Mongol woman, is going to be in Mongolia the same time as me. So we’ve announced a get-together for “Buuz People” in Ulaanbaatar on July 13 at the (no fooling) Grand Khan Irish Pub. Who knows who will show up, but it should be fun.
-It appears that the first weekend of August that there will be a Yak Festival somewhere in the Khangai Mountains west of Ulaanbaatar. Now, how could I miss that?
-I would like to get to a number of Naadam horse races, both the national one and at least one or two local ones to get more painting reference. I also want to get a lot more photos of the herders and their horses.
-There’s not much left of the ancient Mongol capital of Kharkhorin. It was sacked by a Ming Dynasty army and then most of the remaining stone was used to construct Erdene Zuu Monastery. I would like to visit both.
-For wildlife watching this trip, I want to go back to Hustai National Park and see the takhi in the summertime. I didn’t have time to go there last year. And I plan to return to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve for argali, ibex and whatever else comes within camera range.
I’m tweaking my equipment for this trip and will cover that in future posts. At the moment, I’ve gotten a new wind and moisture proof fleece jacket from REI that I really like so far and a new Kata daypack for carrying my camera equipment in the field. More on both next week.
Buuz is one of the most popular foods in Mongolia. They are a small, round steamed “dumpling” with a mutton or beef filling. Mongols make (and eat) zillions of them for their holidays. Just for fun we had a “buuz party” a couple of weeks ago. One of the guests, and the chief buuz maker, was a young Mongol woman, Ganaa, who I met when I advertised for a Mongolian language tutor before my 2006 trip. Her husband is an American who she met when he was teaching English over there in the Peace Corps a few years ago.
I told everyone at the party the Mongol joke that I posted here last week as we scarfed down many buuz and some delicious salads. Ganaa then told us a story about how a family is all sitting around a table eating buuz. There is only one left on the platter when, suddenly, the lights go out. After a short time, the lights come back on and the solitary buuz is gone. Everyone looks at everyone else. Who took the last buuz?
This has apparently been a running joke in Mongolia for many years.
Here’s a photo of the first buuz I ever saw.
I was in western Mongolia, on my way back from the Khomiin Tal tahki reintroduction site. We stopped in a soum center (county seat equivalent) for lunch at this little buuz stand. The ladies made them to order and they were delicious! They were also somewhat bemused by my desire to take a picture of something so utterly ordinary (to them, of course). This was the first real Mongolian food I had ever had.
We hosted our Mongolian friend, her husband and two other couples for a Tsagaan Sar party this past Saturday night. Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and the name means “White Moon”. In Mongolia, it’s about three days of visiting, gift-giving and lots of food and drink. As I was thinking about what to post today, I realized that I haven’t written about the food and, when I poked around my photos, found that I’ve ended up with quite a few images (I take pictures of everything). So, here’s an “album” of Mongolian food, with commentary. My apologies in advance for any homesickness this may cause my Mongolian readers.
One of our stops when I was in western Mongolia in 2006 was this huge salt deposit. And, yes, we drove right out over that “bridge”. If you’ve ever played the game “Civilization”, then you can understand how this resonated with me. For how many thousands of years have people been coming here to get salt?
There happened to be two men doing exactly that. Some of our party had to give it a try. At the end of the handle is a scoop with holes in it to let the liquid run out. It seemed to be trickier to do than it looked, so the local guys were pretty amused.
The brown meat in the bowl is goat. The “Mongolian BBQ” that we get in the US is a Chinese invention and has nothing to do with how real Mongols eat. Their diet has traditionally been meat and dairy, diary and meat. Sheep and goats are slaughtered by cutting a slit in the stomach area, inserting a finger, hooking and pulling a vein (Thank you, Narantsogt, for the correction from what I had previously written. He has more info in the comments section) . Pretty humane and it keeps blood from going all over in a country where there isn’t extra water for cleanup.
Here’s the meat in the pot after the foal branding at Arburd Sands. We were invited, but it was getting dark and it looked like the guys were settling in for a very convivial evening that was going to run very late.
Sometimes the goat is simply butchered and hung up in the ger for use. I was told that this much goat meat would feed 3-4 Mongols for about two weeks. The humidity in Mongolia hovers around 10% max., so meat will keep in the dry air. On the other hand, the Mongols have been eating this way for centuries and have defenses against whatever might get into the meat. Westerners don’t, so we have to be careful what we eat. The head will be on the menu too. Nothing is wasted.
We stopped in a soum center (county seat) in western Mongolia for lunch. While we were waiting for our food, I saw these three ladies with meat to sell. They saw me take the picture and I went over and managed to tell them that I was from California. More smiles. Hope they sold out.
Maybe the most beloved item of Mongolian cuisine. Families make thousands of them for Tsaagan Sar. Generally the filling is mutton. I asked if I could take pictures and, from their expressions, their reaction was along the lines of, “Well, if you want to photograph something sooo ordinary, be our guest….What will those visitors think of next?” I guess the equivalent here would be taking pictures of a McDonald’s. I ate four. I practically had mutton fat running down my arm. They were one of the best things I’ve ever had when traveling. I can’t possibly miss them as much of the Mongols, but I’m really looking forward to my next trip.
There’s a recipe for buuz here. We’ve done them now with lamb and on Saturday we used ground beef. We are going to try to find mutton later this year.
On to dairy:
Aruul is essentially dried milk. Mare’s milk is heated up on the ger stove and separated. The solids (which Narantsogt says he remembers as cheese and yogurt) are mixed with water and flour and formed into a variety of shapes and put out in the sun to dry, usually on the top of the ger. It tastes kind of like an slightly acidic yogurt and is an acquired taste, I would think, for most westerners. It took me about three bites. Careful bites, with my molars, because this stuff is hard. But it’s the perfect snack food in the field. Pure protein.
We were visiting a ger adjacent to Hustai National Park and, instead of aruul, I was offered this: pure cream to spread on the bread. Oh my goodness. I really had to get a grip on my manners, because I could easily have eaten all of it. But one has to remember that the Mongols will give you the last of what they have and do without in order to meet their obligations as hosts and many live pretty close to the edge.
Then they handed me a glass, which I assumed at first was the usual milk tea. After a few sips it dawned on me that it had to be the legendary airag (or kumiss, fermented mare’s milk). This was in September, so it was very late in the airag season. It can be “problematical” for western digestive systems and the feedback loop is very, very short. I decided to throw caution to the winds and drank about 4-5 oz. No problem. Whew.
Last year, at Arburd Sands, we were hosted by a local horse trainer and his family, who have 300+ horses. So there was LOTS of airag. This vessel was full to the brim. Fortunately, we weren’t expected to drink the entire contents of those rather large bowls. I think the idea was more for the host to be able to demonstrate the household’s generosity by offering brimming cups. The vodka was Chinggis Khan Gold, I think, which was excellent. The little cubes behind it were a soft cheese. Also delicious.
Finally, a menu item that I have not had the opportunity to try yet, but which is probably as near and dear to as many Mongol’s hearts as buuz. That would be….marmot.
The Mongols who like marmot, REALLY like marmot. When speaking of it, they get this kind of far away look as if remembering every bite they’ve ever had and are savoring it all over again. I’ll leave the hunting details to another time. If any Mongols reading this want to send me an accurate description and/or account, I’ll gladly post it. The traditional preparation involves gutting the animal and removing the fur with a, wait for it, blowtorch. Then it’s cooked over a fire. On a cultural note, it turns out marmots living in Mongolia are the original disease vector for the bubonic plague (Black Death) that hit Europe in the late 1340s.
When you’ve come in from the countryside, there are lots of good restaurants in UB, including…a Chinese-style Mongolian BBQ, which has proved to be very popular with the actual Mongolians.
If you are going to Mongolia, get the Lonely Planet guide.
For more on Tsagaan Sar and things Mongolian, I HIGHLY recommend the Asian Gypsy blog.
I was given a bag of aruul on my last trip to Mongolia in the fall of 2006. I’ve kept it in the freezer and have been eating a little at a time to make it last. I’m now down to the final three or so pieces, plus some bits of dried cream. So, I’ve kind of had Mongolian food on the brain, thinking about the upcoming trip.
One of my first goals upon arrival is to snag a bag of aruul for snacking on the road. Aruul is essentially dried skim milk. It’s really hard and is definitely an acquired taste. My first encounter with it was when I was out in the early morning viewing the takhi at Khomiin Tal and the ranger offered me a piece for breakfast. I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet, so I started to chew away at it and figured I’d better make it through most of it to be polite. By the time I was done, I liked it just fine. It has a yogurty tang.
The humidity is so low in Mongolia that they can keep raw meat and dairy without refrigeration, although Westerns had better be careful what they try since we don’t have the resistance the Mongolians have built up. On the way back from Khomiin Tal, we stopped at a soum center (county seat) for lunch, which turned out to be what is almost the national dish, buuz, pronounced more like booooz, with a long “o”. Every culture, it seems, has some version of meat/veg in a dough pocket. Think Cornish pasties. So here’s the inside of the cookshop. I asked to take a picture and the reaction was along the lines of “Sure, if you want to photograph something so utterly ordinary and uninteresting it’s fine by us.”
While waiting for our order to be prepared, we wandered around the busy central “plaza”. Over in the shade were three women setting up a table with their wares, a dismembered carcass of some kind. They saw me taking the picture and we made eye contact. I went over, gestured with my camera and thanked them. Then I summoned up my very minimal Mongolian and told them that I was an artist from California. That elicited all kinds of smiles. This kind of experience is a big reason Why I Don’t Take Packaged Tours.
The soum center. I’m not sure of the name. It’s on the north shore of Khar Us Nur and I have maps with two different names. Someone help me out here.